St. Anthony in the suburbs?
They're not quite a mass movement, but numbers of contemporary hermits are on the rise
Say "hermit," and you might picture a bearded man in a tunic in the middle of a forest in the middle of nowhere. Each morning, the hermit dines on bread and water; in the afternoon, he hovers over cryptic calligraphy; and at night, he chants ancient hymns that bounce off the bare walls.Skip to next paragraph
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But the modern hermit breaks most stereotypes: He may wear a tunic, but he'll live in the inner city. He may transcribe Latin, but he'll also run a website.
Contemplative groups and monasteries around the country report a growing number of people pursuing a life of solitude, contemplation, and prayer. The Raven's Bread, a quarterly newsletter for hermits, surveyed 590 subscribers last May, most of them scattered around North America. Out of 122 who responded, 88 are currently living as hermits, 15 plan to start doing so soon, and 28 indicated interest in such a vocation.
According to the survey, these contemporary hermits include nuns and monks, priests, Buddhists, and Quakers. Some live alone in complete silence, and some live in cloisters with other hermits. Some take public vows before clergy, while others maintain absolute anonymity. "It seems to be a movement that's larger than the containers in place to hold it," says the Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault, an Anglican priest and a hermit with the Contemplative Society in Victoria, British Columbia.
What is today's equivalent of finding inner peace in a cell in the Sahara Desert in the tradition of St. Anthony, the most famous of the Roman Catholic hermits? Each hermit has his or her own interpretation of the solitary life. But if modern society creates a ringing in the ears that leaves many craving solitude, today's world also puts up barriers to that solitude. Whatever their spiritual feats, the modern hermit's first accomplishment is simply finding a way to be alone.
If Ms. Bourgeault had her way, she'd be living in total isolation in an 18-by-24-foot cabin on Eagle Island in Maine. But money won't allow it - yet.
Bourgeault, professed by an Anglican bishop in Colorado, has worked out a deal with the Contemplative Society. In return for her teaching prayer, the society provides her a place to live. She also earns money writing about prayer. Whatever she can save goes toward the cabin. Construction began this summer.
But Bourgeault works with more than a twinge of regret - as a hermit, she longs not only to be alone, but to shun distractions, including teaching and writing. "How do you make a living [as a hermit]?" she asks. "That's ... hotly contested."
Bourgeault's solution - to work for a religious group while keeping her own space - is just one. Karen Fredette, who edits the Raven's Bread with her husband in Hot Springs, N.C., is a former nun and hermit. From 1989 to 1994, Ms. Fredette lived in a small cabin in West Virginia rent-free (also plumbing-free). To sustain herself, she worked once a week as a church secretary. But what really saved her, she can only describe as divine providence: a monthly check for $300 from an anonymous benefactor for most of those six years.
The Raven's Bread survey reports that income for 58 percent of hermits is less than $20,000 a year, with 11 percent living by alms. Yet while all Christian hermits take vows of poverty, Bourgeault insists that hermits not be confused with ascetics.